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An historic cemetery that may have begun the New Orleans tradition of above-ground crypts will soon be off-limits to tourists wandering about on their own because of tomb vandalism, the Catholic archdiocese that owns the property announced.
Starting in March, entry to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and its labyrinth of mausoleums will be restricted to relatives of the dead buried there, visiting scholars and only those with a tour guide registered with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
The new policy is necessary to protect the tombs, archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald said. “We’ve had unlicensed tour guides and others handing out markers and instructions on how to mark up various tombs,” she said in releasing the new policy Monday.
One of the most famous tombs is believed to hold the remains of 19th Century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. In 2013, Laveau’s tomb was covered from one end to the other with pink latex paint. But the problems extend beyond her tomb.
“We also have people leaving trash in the cemetery, littering, setting up camp,” McDonald said in an interview.
Oldest Graveyard in New Orleans
Established in 1789, the cemetery surrounded by 6 ½-foot-high brick walls is the oldest remaining graveyard in this city beside the Mississippi River. A Deep South tourist destination, New Orleans is renowned for Mardi Gras, jazz, Cajun cuisine and the sometimes elaborate mausoleums that give its cemeteries the phrase “cities of the dead.”
Early burials in St. Louis No. 1 are thought to have been below ground or in low tombs, according to the website for a nonprofit group, Save Our Cemeteries. Concrete and marble burial vaults, experts believe, were built atop those earlier graves to accommodate later burials.
St. Louis No. 1 covers an entire city block with “a maze of tombs and aisles,” the organization notes, including “oven vaults” for those unable to afford the stand-alone mausoleums for affluent members of various societies.
Plessy vs. Ferguson Segregation Case
Among the thousands buried in St. Louis No. 1 are Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in Plessy vs. Ferguson in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation laws were constitutional; and world chess champion Paul Morphy.
Sherri Peppo, director of the archdiocesan cemeteries office, said in a news release Monday that several tombs have been broken into and vandalized in the past year. Even security cameras have been stolen.
“We needed to take some steps to protect both the sacred nature of the cemetery and preserve the history that is there as well,” Peppo said.
Complicating matters, a local legend has it that Laveau will grant a wish for someone who makes three Xs on the tomb believed to be hers, knocks on the tomb and shouts the wish.
“I can tell you what it is in three words: graffiti, vandalism and desecration,” guide Renee Dodge of Haunted History Tours told a dozen people with a tour group visiting Tuesday afternoon.
Emily Ford, a restoration consultant for Save Our Cemeteries, used cotton swabs and assorted liquids Tuesday to carefully wipe Xs off the lowest of the tomb’s three marble name plates. Some were made with eye shadow, others in crayon, waxy lip balm and ink.
Pointing to a set of Xs scraped on the marble, she said: “I can’t do anything about that.”
Tour Guide Registration
Registration for tour guides will begin in February, the archdiocese said. Tour companies and independent guides must show insurance and a city license. Guides who occasionally bring tours to the cemetery can pay $40 for a one-time pass; those giving regular tours must pay $4,500 to $5,400 a year.
Both the new policy and fees are reasonable, said Amanda Walker, director of Save Our Cemeteries, which gives tours of St. Louis cemeteries 1 and 2 and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 to raise money for restoration.
She noted that most cemetery tours are being conducted by guides for “pure profit.”
“None of the money goes to the cemetery,” she added.
McDonald said relatives of those buried in the cemetery must contact the archdiocese to make arrangements — likewise for scholars and those conducting genealogical research.
Though the new fees are expected to pay to staff the cemetery during business hours and take unspecified security measures, some lament the change.
Jasmine Schumaker, a recent transplant from Santa Cruz, California, to suburban New Orleans, visited Tuesday with an offering of fruit and rum for Laveau’s tomb.
She said Laveau’s tomb was completely covered in Xs when she visited the city 10 years ago, but the new restrictions will be a shame.
“I’m really sorry about the vandalism, but this is such an essential part of New Orleans culture,” she said. Perhaps, she suggested, people could be told to make Xs on pieces of paper and leave those in front of the tomb.
This article was written by Janet Mcconnaughey from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.